Tough job market even tougher for those with disabilities

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People wait in line to enter a jobs fair at FedEx Field in the Washington, DC suburb of Landover, Maryland.
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David Fullerton is typically a glass half-full kind of employee. So you know times are tough when he's comparing his job to "watching people drown and not having as many life lines to throw them."

Fullerton is an employment counselor. He works specifically with adults who have physical or mental disabilities; anything from multiple scoliosis to traumatic brain injury to bipolar disorder. Essentially, his job goal is to help others fulfill their job goals - starting with getting hired.

"It's always a challenging job because we've got people with significant barriers," Fullerton said. "Now we've got people in tough situations, but we also have less of a job market to work with. We have to say, 'How do we make you equivalent or rise above your competition, someone who was laid off yesterday who doesn't have any other issues to deal with?'"

Fullerton is one of 146 counselors in the state's vocational rehabilitation system, which served about 24,000 people last year. That number is expected to rise in 2009. Those with disabilities aren't immune to layoffs, and as the number of unemployed Minnesotans climbs, so does the number of unemployed Minnesotans with disabilities.

In addition to the downsized, Fullerton works with clients like Charlotte, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2006. After a lot of hospitalization and a lot more rehabilitation, she's preparing to re-enter the workforce.

"It is very stressful because there are normal people, or able-bodied people, who are losing jobs left and right," Charlotte said. "For me to go in with a disability, the only thing I would hope is that they're trying to meet a quota and have to hire someone with a disability. That would be the only leg up I would have. Being the token equal-opportunity person in a wheelchair is not who I want to be. I want to be there because they believe in my work."

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Fullerton can get clients like Charlotte job-specific training. He can offer resume suggestions and interviewing tips. He can even track down voice-controlled software or computer programs that can be activated by the movements of one's forehead. But, sometimes, the most valuable thing he can provide is emotional support.

"As a culture, we gravitate towards our jobs as being part of who we are," Fullerton said. "Well, suddenly if you aren't doing your job, especially because of an injury, then you get this whole, 'Who am I? I don't know who I am anymore.'

"So you have to work with that and help people discover themselves in this new context of their existence," he said. "You get people who come in here certain they can't do something. Then you show them some possibilities and you see this light in their eyes. That's one of the highlights of my job."

Fullerton is quick to point out that he's a career counselor, not a charity worker. His colleague, John Fisher, said that's an important distinction. He said, these days, people with disabilities are judged on their skills and compete for jobs just like everyone else. It's a much different employment model than the country had 50 years ago.

"There were isolated enclaves, 'sheltered workshops' is often what they were called, where people with disabilities would go and they would work in isolation, often for minimum wage or less," Fisher said. "It was sometimes meaningful work, sometimes not."

The move toward non-segregated workplaces started gaining momentum in the 1980s. Not long after that, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed. More recently, the federal stimulus plan allocated money to states like Minnesota to help them ensure a move level the employment playing field for those with disabilities.

David Fullerton said that's all great, but that doesn't mean there aren't still challenges for people like his client Charlotte.

Back in his office, David Fullerton advises that Charlotte mention her disability in her job applications. It's not a legal requirement. He does, however, warn her that when she gets to the job interview stage, there will be hiring managers who will be simply incapable of seeing past a client's wheelchair.

Fullerton said he could talk all day about how, contrary to popular belief, employees with disabilities don't cause the company's health insurance costs to rise and how, despite the fears of company budget balancers, the vast majority of office adaptations for these employees cost less than $500. In fact, the most common modification is raising the height of a desk to accommodate a wheelchair -- and that's free.

But, concedes Fullerton, when the economy is as tight as it is, there's no time to fight lingering cultural stereotypes. What he can do is make sure his clients are tough competitors even in a tough market.

"We'll help prepare you best we can," Fullerton said. "You're gonna have to fight for it, but we're here in your corner to help you fight for it."

And that's huge; especially in a time when something as subjective as the font style on a resume knock you out of the running for a job.